As early as Monday, the U.N. Security Council could consider a new resolution put forth by the Trump administration that proposes cutting off North Korea's energy imports, textile exports and ability to deploy workers abroad, according to a leaked draft. If put to a vote, that resolution will likely fail in the face of Russian and Chinese resistance.
Should that happen, there will be no more excuse for the United States not to move forward with allies Japan and South Korea with crippling sanctions aimed at the regime, its institutions and its elite supporters. Until now, the administration has held back as it sought to persuade and prod Beijing to use its considerable leverage to bring Kim to heel.
Once the Trump administration acknowledges that China and Russia have done all they intend to, the United States can go much further unilaterally, or with allies, to finally test whether drastic sanctions, combined with tough diplomacy, can move Kim from his defiant position.
"The amount of pressure North Korea has been put under economically is still far short of what we applied to Iran or even Iraq," a senior administration official said. "There is a long way to go before North Korea is going to feel the pressure they would need to feel to change their calculus."
But time is running out as North Korea speeds up work on its nuclear program. That's why Congress and parts of the North Korea expert community are ramping up calls for the Trump administration to pivot from using only those tools approved by China and Russia.
"I've watched the calibrated strategy which is enunciated by the administration and it doesn't work," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) told me. "I believe we have to come in full throttle with cutting off institutions, primarily financial institutions domiciled in China."
The Trump administration has dabbled in imposing sanctions on Chinese entities that help enable the Kim regime's illicit activities, but it has yet to cross the line into any area that might put delicate U.S.-China coordination at risk. Royce urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to put such measures into action during a briefing last week.
His committee also wrote a letter to the administration listing large Chinese entities ripe for sanctions, including the Chinese Agricultural Bank and the China Merchant Bank.
"We have not had the resolve to put these sanctions on those major institutions," said Royce. "It's time to go to maximum pressure."
There are risks in confronting large Chinese banks, which are essentially arms of the Chinese government. Former top Treasury Department official Adam Szubin testified to the Senate Banking Committee last week that imposing sanctions on the banks could harm the Chinese economy and have unintended consequences for the U.S. economy.
Nevertheless, he said, the United States should move forward: "The only hope we have lies in a qualitatively different and more severe level of pressure — one that threatens Kim Jong Un's hold on power," Szubin testified.
Cutting off hard currency to the Kim regime could undermine Kim's fragile position with the North Korean elites and military leaders whom he needs to keep happy. Moreover, Kim needs hard currency to continue to develop his nuclear and missile programs, which rely heavily on smuggled components from other countries.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said last week that even if Kim doesn't change course, crippling sanctions could slow his progress toward achieving the capability to threaten the United States.
"Do we think more sanctions are going to work on North Korea? Not necessarily," she said at the American Enterprise Institute. "But what does it do? It cuts off the revenue that allows them to build ballistic missiles."
Going after the regime's funding proved effective in 2005, when the Bush administration sanctioned a Macau bank laundering money for the Kim family. That led to a series of events that brought North Korea to the negotiating table. President Trump said recently that talking to the North Korean regime would not be productive, but his State Department is working toward direct diplomacy.
Whether the goal is to negotiate, undermine the regime's legitimacy or simply slow its nuclear progress, moving forward without China and Russia on maximum pressure is the right move. It may also be the last chance to avoid a binary choice between a nuclear North Korea that can blackmail the world or war.
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